Nonoverlapping magisteria

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Nonoverlapping magisteria (or NOMA) is the concept, originally presented by Stephen Jay Gould, that:

"Science and religion are not in conflict, for their teachings occupy distinctly different domains."

This position is accepted by many modern theists as it allows them to reconcile apparent contradictions. With science and religion in non-competitive domains, one is free to hold supernatural beliefs and still accept scientific explanations of the natural world.

The NAS released a statement endorsing this same idea in 1997 [1]:

"Scientists, like many others, are touched with awe at the order and complexity of nature. Indeed, many scientists are deeply religious. But science and religion occupy two separate realms of human experience. Demanding that they be combined detracts from the glory of each."

Basically NOMA attempts a compromise between science and religion. Science should, according to NOMA inform how the world is, that means when scientific observations, contradict or appear to contradict the Bible or other “Sacred” texts the scientific findings should be accepted as accurate. So far this is reasonable, for example we can accept scientific statements about evolution or astronomy/cosmology even when "sacred texts" appear to contradict science. Then Gould suggests that religion should determine questions about ultimate meaning whatever that is, moral values, beauty, religion etc.

NOMA may tend to isolate the religious fundamentalists from the more liberal believers. Fundamentalists do not accept that science can be correct in any area that contradicts their faith based position while liberal believers are prepared to accept NOMA. NOMA also risks separating those scientists who accept NOMA from scientists who take research where the Scientific method leads even when this challenges some NOMA based positions. Moral philosophers for example hold a range of different opinions and do not accept faith based “sacred” texts as a basis for all morality.


The primary objection to this premise, by both religionists and scientists, is that acceptable boundaries cannot be defined.

  • Beauty cannot be measured scientifically but human reactions when creating something considered beautiful or appreciating something beautiful can be studied empirically as can other aspects of human behaviour. Therefore treating art as somehow separate does not make sense.
  • NOMA reasonably advocates that for example Bronze Age texts in the Old Testament suggesting that the sun stood still (Joshua 10-12) conflict with science and what astronomers say rather than the Bible should be accepted. Then NOMA goes on to say unreasonably that the same unreliable Bronze Age texts give moral decrees that scientists cannot question.
  • Fundamentalists and Biblical literalists believe that placing limits on religion is tantamount to placing limits on God and that God's transcendent nature dictates that nothing is beyond the scope of religion. For these believers, the answers provided by science are acceptable until they contradict so-called knowledge revealed by God.
  • Christians routinely seek to impose their faith based moral values onto scientists, for example trying to ban some types of stem cell research or banning it, see Wikipedia:Stem cell controversy. Meanwhile scientists are expected to accept without question limits that believers impose on them.
  • Many scientists argue that an obvious boundary exists (natural/supernatural) but that religion generally refuses to remain within its domain, while religionists argue that science is continually encroaching into its territory by examining the questions of human origins, consciousness and even morality. Materialists respond that religion overstepped its boundaries long ago, by filling gaps in our knowledge with dogmatic assertions that, as our understanding has grown, have been replaced with naturalistic explanations.
  • This observation is historically supported, and the conflict between science and religion is well documented. If something is initially considered supernatural (magnetism, for example) and science later provides a naturalistic explanation, how can anything be considered beyond the scope of scientific investigation?
  • Indeed, scientific investigation rooted in rational, naturalistic materialism has proven to be the most consistent and reliable method of explaining reality.
  • Gould defined magisterium as "a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution" - However, one could argue that within religion there is no meaningful discourse or resolution or tools for such ends, as such religion isn't a magisterium at all. Discourse and resolution never happens since different faith groups hold different, sometimes mutually contradictory faith based beliefs and no amount of discussion can decide which if any are correct.
  • NOMA serves to, as Richard Dawkins argues, shield religion from scientific scrutiny. The God hypothesis that there exists an all powerful man who created humans and other life forms and created the universe is at its core a scientific hypothesis open to falsifiability.


  • Not Opposing Metaphysical Asininity

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